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The Developer Society: “It really is amazing working here.”

Case study

14th May 2024
Co-op development
A team shot of the worker owners of The Developer Society
The Developer Society team

Meet the creative agency that not only develops software – it develops its workers too. A place where creativity is nurtured and empowered thanks to its co‑operative principles.  

The Developer Society is a Birmingham‑based, not‑for‑profit creative agency offering a range of services including branding, campaigns, design, software development and digital transformation. 

Originally set up as a limited company, it converted to a co‑operative after eight years in business, for two big reasons: “An accountant advised us to fire all our staff and use contractors instead. This didn’t chime with our values,” said founder and Managing Director Stephen Hawkes.

The team had also done some work for Oxfam and found it so rewarding they decided to pitch for other charity projects – but were pipped to the post for a contract due to their rivals being a not‑for‑profit organisation. 

“All of this made us question our business model and the received wisdom we’d acquired from financial and legal professionals when we started out,” said Stephen. 

So they set about exploring the alternatives and found that a co‑operative was a perfect fit for their mission, vision and values. 

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There were lots of things we wanted to do – like looking after employees and treating them as equals. We also wanted to work for charities and the third sector – and the co‑op business model felt really good for us.
– Stephen Hawkes, founder and Managing Director of The Developer Society

So the Developer Society became a community benefit society – a type of co‑op – in 2017. Now, the 28‑strong team boasts a raft of projects they’re proud of. These include running the digital platform that hosts Oxfam’s campaigns and creating a web‑based self‑help tool for the Samaritans during the Covid‑19 pandemic.

They also developed the online platform for Living Streets – the project is an initiative that encourages children to travel to school in healthier ways. 

“Each day they declare how they travelled to school, and earn rewards for doing so in healthy ways. Over 1.5 million entries are recorded per week,” Stephen explained. 

For him and his colleagues, being a co‑op is great for business, great for the team and great for creativity. “We trade in our time, knowledge and skills – so having a happy, effective and engaged team is crucial. 

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Operating as a co‑op engages our workers. It gives them ownership, agency, and control. They have a say in how we run the business. If you’re a creative worker there’s a personal pride in what you are producing. When you give someone ownership to do that, it empowers them.
– Stephen Hawkes, The Developer Society

“We have fortnightly retrospectives where we look at how the last two weeks have gone – and discuss what we can do to improve. We’ve done things like moving meeting times so parents can do school pick‑ups.

“We also have ‘town hall meetings’ where people can raise topics to discuss, for example, how we estimate quotes. Things that come up are important issues. 

“The level of trust here is high, because when we’re having conversations about tough decisions, everyone’s at the table. It makes it easier for everyone – because we’re all trying to keep everything afloat for everyone. It’s a different dynamic.” 

Mareen Akhter is one of the team who’s been empowered by working for a co‑operative. A former teacher, she was heavily pregnant when she was hired as a developer, having completed a four-month coding bootcamp with the School of Code. 

“I was in disbelief for a long time that The Developer Society took me on when I was eight months pregnant,” she said.

“I loved the way they worked. It was a culture shock coming from the education sector which is a toxic environment with hierarchies. 

“It was just amazing to see everyone working in the same space and being treated equally. I thought, ‘I think Steve’s in charge but I’m not sure now.’ I thought it couldn’t be this good.”

But it was. And four years on, Mareen is now a director of the co-op as well as a developer. And her input has led to changes in their maternity policy – taking it from the statutory minimum to three months on full pay.

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When I joined, I had imposter syndrome and baby brain. What I had learned on my course was a bit fuzzy. So I found a top‑up course that I wanted to do. The co‑op paid for it. And it helped me immeasurably.
– Mareen Akhter, Director and Developer at The Developer Society

The Developer Society is an unusual organisation in having more female than male developers. This is due to a conscious effort to bring more women into the sector.

“I don’t know how we’ve managed it but everyone we’ve hired is absolutely lovely,” said Mareen. 

“We all believe in the co‑op values and principles. Everyone comes together. And there’s a willingness to try different things. If we try something new and it doesn’t work, nobody is afraid to call it out and get it stopped. It really is amazing working here. I still can’t quite believe it.” 

The team at The Developer Society are keen to help other co‑operatives on their journey, whether that’s with digital or being a co‑op – so reach out to them and say hi. 

Find out more 

The Developer Society – Website | X | LinkedIn | GitHub

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